How micro-enterprise is improving livelihoods in the Punjab

Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of thousands of cotton-growing communities in Pakistan. Together with WWF and IKEA, Khanewal locals Ramzana Bibi, Sarfaraz Bati and Irum Shehzadi are helping their communities fight back, through pioneering climate-resilient cotton production and developing micro-enterprise.

Realising a dream

“We’re poor people,” says Ramzana Bibi. “I wake up at dawn, pray, wake up the kids, feed them and send them to school. Then I clean my house and go off to find work.”

Ramzana is a cotton picker in Khanewal, a typical agricultural district in Punjab province which produces nearly 80% of Pakistan’s cotton. She lives with her husband, a casual labourer, and their four children in a one-room house in a small dirt yard between the local mosque and primary school.

Every day from September to November, she picks cotton. It’s back-breaking work under hot sun and the rewards are slim – she makes around 200-300 rupees ($1.25-$1.90) a day for picking half a mound (20kg) – so in the off-season, she works as a maid or joins her husband, taking whatever work is available.

“I pick cotton and vegetables. I cut wheat. I sow and mend people’s clothes and blankets, or repair their mud walls. I do whatever they ask but it’s hard to get by on such low wages,” says Ramzana. “Sometimes I come home and fall on the bed without any idea where I am.”

Besides a few charpai – traditional woven rope beds – and an open cooking area with a mud stove, Ramzana and her family share their yard with two buffalo, half a dozen goats and several large stacks of bricks. The animals don’t belong to her although she receives a small payment for her care when they’re sold – but the bricks are all her own. Her dream is to build a second room for her family’s house.

Ramzana’s circumstances are common. About 1.5 million small farmers produce around three-quarters of Pakistan’s cotton, and their livelihoods and well-being rely on good harvests.

Uncertain futures

In the late autumn, Punjab’s misty evening skies cast a pale, eggy light across the land, and beneath their spell, an intricate web of 50,000 dams, barrages and canals form the arteries of the British Empire’s largest 19th century irrigation project, bringing the waters of the mighty Indus to communities far beyond the river’s natural reach.

The river and agriculture are Punjab’s lifeline. Across the province, 16 million men and women work a patchwork of rice, maize, wheat, sugar cane and cotton, enduring the heat, tilling the land, firing bricks, building simple homes, and carrying impossible loads on shoulders, rickshaws and multi-coloured lorries with pirate ship prows – surviving.

All are poor, and in recent decades many have struggled to turn a profit. Once naturally productive soils, now worn out by delivering the chemically-induced bounties of the Green Revolution, require evermore fertiliser, and climate change has begun to bite.

Pakistan is among the top ten most climate-vulnerable countries and the impact of rising temperatures on the glaciers of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Ladakh and Himalayan mountains that feed the Indus have made its ‘water tower’ the most vulnerable in the world, putting 1.9 billion people reliant on its irrigation at risk.

A decade of severe droughts followed by devastating floods in Punjab have posed serious problems for the cotton sector, especially small farmers who lack the capacity to adapt. In 2016, for example, cotton production in Punjab was down 38% on 2015.

It’s something that Asad Ullah Imran, WWF Sustainable Agriculture & Food Programme lead in Pakistan, has witnessed first-hand. And since 2007, in partnership with IKEA, WWF has sought to harness the power of the market to drive rural development and reduce poverty.

“Our water supply is shrinking. We get too much rain when we don’t need it and none when we do. The seasons have shifted, minor pests have become major pests, water salinity is increasing, and crop failures are common,” says Asad. “Farming communities are the real victims. They know something’s wrong and ask us what’s happening. We have to help them adapt or they won’t survive, and there won’t be a cotton industry.”

Kitchen gardening

In Punjab’s Bahawalpur, Lodhran and Khanewal districts, WWF and IKEA are helping cotton-growing families adapt to climate change. Poor harvests mean low wages, and their Climate Resilient Crop Production project offers women like Ramzana entrepreneurial training and support to set up micro-enterprises that boost incomes.

“I went to a workshop with around 20-25 other women. They showed us how to create a kitchen garden,” says Ramzana. “Growing vegetables saves me about 500 rupees a week and I’ve been able to save a little for the house and give the children some pocket money.”

Ramzana is one of 500 women taking part in the project. Growing vegetables such as tomatoes, okra, and spinach, and sometimes harvesting up to five kilos a day, she can avoid expensive market groceries, feed her family, and sell what’s left to neighbours.

“Vegetables are costly because most land is dedicated to cash crops like cotton,” says Asad. “An average household spends 3,000-5,000 rupees a month on vegetables. Encouraging women to grow their own organically on small patches of land near their homes, is a simple intervention that saves money and shows how they can improve their lives.”

So far, everything Ramzana has saved over the last 18 months, she’s spent on buying building materials. At the moment, she has about 1,500 bricks worth perhaps 12,000 rupees but needs the same again before she can begin building.

“God willing, I’ll be able to save enough through hard work to build a bigger house and have my own piece of land,” says Ramzana. “And I hope my children do well in life and get good jobs. These are the small things I wish and pray for in my heart.”

Simply increasing wages might seem like an easy solution but the lasting change WWF and IKEA are seeking requires transformation right across the cotton sector and society.

Fermenting change

“I’m a farmer,” says Sarfaraz Bati, a 60 year-old living in a small village outside Khanewal. “I’ve got five kids – three boys and two girls. I sent one boy to the city, and another works in the fields with me.”

Growing cotton and maize, and keeping three buffalo, Sarfaraz owns two and a half acres and rents another three.

“About ten years ago, the crops were good but chemicals have destroyed the soil,” says Sarfaraz. “When I told a guy from WWF about the problem, he suggested using a fermenter.”

One of the first participants in WWF’s fortnightly field schools which offer farmers hands-on training, Sarfaraz learnt how to build a fermenter – a simple open concrete tank in which he brews a rich natural fertiliser full of organic nutrients.

After adding fresh cow dung to water, stirring thoroughly and fermenting for two weeks, Sarfaraz opens the tank and blends the heady mix with fresh irrigation water. Flushing across his fields, it reaches every corner, attracting local egrets who stalk small frogs and insects drawn out by the moisture.

“By using fermented water, we use less chemical fertiliser, my crops are healthy and the land is fertile,” says Sarfaraz. “Before we had the fermenter, it was very hard to cover costs and we used to sell milk to make things work.”

Globally, more than half of all agricultural soils are degraded. Restoring organic matter not only improves yields but also helps tackle climate change by storing carbon.

“If Sarfaraz uses the fermenter for three or four seasons, the soil’s natural regenerative capacity will return,” says Asad. “We’ve helped build fermenters in every village – we don’t give things away but try to demonstrate new techniques for neighbouring farmers. They know from their forefathers that natural dung is good for the soil but it’s hard work spreading manure! Now they see that using a fermenter saves a lot of effort.”

As well as using organic manure to improve soil quality, other climate-resilient techniques that WWF and IKEA promote include using climate-smart cotton varieties, planting crops such as maize alongside cotton to draw away pests, using pheromone traps to control pests, and using drip or automated irrigation and laser-assisted land-levelling to improve water efficiency.

From nursery to school

Irum Shehzadi lives with her seven siblings in a five-family communal settlement outside Khanewal. Each family has a couple of rooms, all arranged motel-style around a courtyard where women cook, children play or watch TV, and men sit, talk and sing. And through a wooden door lies a dusty farmyard menagerie of goats, cows and other animals all of whom need attention. Irum is always busy, sweeping the floor, milking the cows, or helping her mother. It’s hard to find peace and quiet, especially if she wants to study – something she treasures but has only recently been able to start again.

“After my father passed away, there was no-one in the house to earn money. Getting by was difficult so I had to leave school and go to work in the cotton fields.”

With her mother also in poor health and just an acre of land of their own on which to grow cotton and rear animals, the family still struggle to make ends meet.

“WWF gave me the idea to plant trees. They gave me seeds to start a nursery. So far I’ve planted 2,000 saplings and sold around 1,700. With the money I’ve bought a school bag, books and a uniform, and started studying again. Insha’Allah, I’ll go to college and become something.”

Irum’s ‘micro-nursery’ is one of 25 in Khanewal that have so far produced 40,000 native saplings. By offering training, seeds, soil bags and tools, as well as a sapling ‘buy back’ scheme, the WWF and IKEA project makes it easy and affordable for women to start micro-enterprises that not only generate extra income but that also help poor farming communities combat climate change through agroforestry – growing trees amongst crops. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide, the trees improve soil health, protect crops from adverse weather, help prevent erosion, and can help generate extra income. They also provide shelter and shade for animals and birds – including those that eat cotton pests like pink boll worm.

“The government’s ‘Green Initiative’ aims to plant ten billion trees to help sequester carbon and cover a quarter of the country in five years,” says Asad. “In parallel, we’re promoting agroforestry. We want to plant a million trees, and our nurseries are helping supplement commercial supply and complementing the government effort in rural areas.”

Empowering women

While three-quarters of working women in Punjab do so in agriculture, few have any financial independence. Giving them an opportunity to run their own micro-enterprise brings hope and helps address gender inequality. And for Irum, being able to resume her studies could radically change her future.

“Irum’s is a powerful story. She’s a role model for other young women in the area. For generations, women have been an integral part of cotton production but with little reward or recognition,” says Asad. “These interventions look small but they can change lives.”

Asad’s grandparents were farmers but his mother was an English teacher and he fell in love with reading at an early age, particularly stories about local heroes doing well.

“I owe everything to my mother. She was one of the first Muslim women in Pakistan to go to university in the ’60s,” says Asad. “Her own teacher persuaded my grandfather to support her education. Her independence inspired me and I realised that when you empower a woman, you empower a whole family. In Pakistan, women must be given more opportunity. It’s not about disturbing the fabric of society, but strengthening it.”

Scaling up

Cotton remains an important cash crop in Pakistan which could draw millions out of poverty. Fulfilling its potential requires the widespread adoption of climate-smart agriculture which in turn relies on financing and training, especially for small farmers.

Since 2005, WWF and IKEA have sought to make cotton production more sustainable. From starting work with just a few hundred cotton farmers in Pakistan, today two million farmers in 21 countries are now producing 19% of all cotton globally through the Better Cotton Initiative – a global non-profit organisation co-founded by WWF, IKEA and other civil society and business partners to drive sustainability in the sector.

Today, the focus is on innovation, expansion and extending engagement across the whole cotton value chain, and promoting further uptake of more sustainable cotton.

“The only way we can succeed is by empowering the people that grow cotton. That means improving livelihoods and well-being,” says Asad. “Sometimes WWF isn’t seen as an organisation that delivers social change but unless we do, we cannot succeed.”

Soft, strong, and affordable, cotton is one of the world’s most popular textiles. It’s with us from the cradle to the grave. Yet we rarely think about who makes it or how it’s made.

“We need to change the way the world looks at cotton,” says Asad. “Whenever we see a cotton boll, a cotton thread, or a cotton shirt, we should appreciate the effort, the toil and the care that’s gone into producing it – and spare a thought for those who’ve endured the scorching heat of the sun and done what it takes to bring us such benefit.”

Working with cotton-growing communities on the ground in Pakistan and India is just one way in which WWF and IKEA are working together around the world for people and planet. Find out more about the partnership here.

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